What we can learn from the volunteers who built two of the Internet’s most popular platforms

Wikipedia, Waze, and having fun for free on the Internet 

“It's a misconception people work for free, they have fun for free.” — Jimmy Wales, Hacker Noon, 2018

Many of the most influential companies and organizations in the world today are platforms, facilitating relationships and transactions between independent third-parties to create value. Airbnb was built in the homes of its hosts, Uber in the cars of its drivers, and DoorDash in the arms of its dashers. While many of these supplier-stakeholders (hosts, drivers, dashers) contribute in exchange for payment, there are a few notable communities which have built some of the most prolific platforms on the Internet completely for free. 

Two examples are Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, and Waze, a mapping and navigation app owned by Google. Wikipedia is ranked #13 on the top websites visited in the world by Alexa, and comprises more than 55M articles across 285 languages. Its data often informs the first results displayed in a Google search. And it is maintained entirely by its volunteer editors, about 130,000 of whom actively contribute each month. [1] 

Waze is the #2 Navigation app in the Apple App Store, and has 130M monthly active users. [2] Its map and traffic data are entirely provided by 30,000 volunteers.

Who are these volunteers, who spend hours per week essentially building and maintaining these products for free? Why do they do it? And how are these platforms in many ways superior to their competitors? I dove into researching these communities, and have made a few observations that may begin to answer these questions. 

  1. These are regular people, not professionals or experts. 

Full-time professions across community contributors vary: there are lawyers and pizza delivery men, police officers and engineers. Contributors across both platforms skew male and age 40+. [3, 4]

However, what is particularly notable is the lack of actual “expert” involvement. In the early days of Wikipedia before it really took off, two spin-off/rival online encyclopedias with a focus on experts were founded by an ex-co-founder and influential editor, respectively. These efforts floundered, and they learned that “experts do not want to contribute to a free online encyclopedia.” [3]

  1. They put in a lot of hours, but aren’t interested in being paid. 

Waze volunteers account spending 30 to 40 hours per week editing Waze maps and teaching editors in training, while some committed Wikipedians report editing up to 16 hours per day. [4, 5]

Yet they are not interested in being paid. Stephen Pruit, a Wikipedia Editor who holds the record for most edits in English Wikipedia (3M+!), rejects the notion that he should be paid and has turned down offers to write paid articles before. For him, this is a hobby, and accepting payment would go against the “Wikipedia ethos.” [6]

  1. They are motivated by giving back, being part of a community, and having fun. 

Waze editors are happy to help others avoid sitting in traffic longer than they need to. On the topic, a Waze editor has stated “I make enough money in my  job... I am a pay-it-forward guy.” [4] And Wikipedias are committed to the mission of making knowledge accessible to all. Pruitt again sums this up well: “I’ve come to believe that we, collectively, are changing the world and the way the world thinks about knowledge. That’s an amazing thing to think about, and it still blows my mind.” [6]

Waze editors say the community feels like a “second family”. [4] Wikipedians share their backgrounds on User pages and discuss their edits on Talk pages (the Talk page for flamingos features discussions on the origin of their pink color and whether coverage of plastic flamingo lawn ornaments is warranted).

Most importantly, contributing is also fun. Waze has gamified the process of editing, offering points and “promotions” along the way which grant editors more responsibility. Wikipedians compete against one another to climb up edit-count leaderboards, and to become some of the select few administrators on the site. Their Talk pages and policies are rife with nerdy jokes. 

  1. Each community has built sophisticated and time-hardened governance and arbitration processes. 

Wikipedia in particular stands out here, with a set of policy directives and suggestions running over 150,000 words. There are core content policies: edits must have a neutral point of view, be verifiable, and not be based on original research. There is a long list of supporting policies (spoilers are allowed, writing your own Wikipedia page is not), with detailed instructions on how to propose new ones. 

Decisions are made by coming to consensus, primarily achieved through discussion on the Talk Pages. There is a lengthy page devoted to dispute resolution processes, and as last resort, cases can be referred to the Arbitration Committee.

  1. The platforms built by these communities are superior in many ways to their competitors. 

Waze is recognized by one of the top navigation applications available to travelers today, with real-time updates made across states and countries much more quickly than a centralized team would be able to achieve. 

And particularly over the past few years, Wikipedia has stood out as a rare source of truth and reliability as false and misleading information has infiltrated many of the Internet’s other most popular destinations. Of course there are a variety of reasons for this — Wikipedia’s non-profit status and mission to act as the world’s free encyclopedia leave it free from many of the considerations that must be made by social media companies. 

That being said, it is striking that Wikipedia’s volunteer editors have been relatively successful at neutralizing the efforts of trolls and partisans during a particularly contentious time on the Internet. 

While these platforms have created a massive amount of value for its millions of users globally, they of course are not without their problems. In 2014, Waze and its co-founders were sued in a class action by an Israeli accountant on behalf of the open source community which contributed to the original mapping project which Waze was built upon. The suit was later dismissed. [7]

Female and nonbinary Wikipedians have reported harassment, doxing, hacking, and death threats. And the community’s male skew may be the reason behind only 17% of biographies being on women. In response, the Wikimedia Foundation has allocated money to a “community health initiative” to fight harassment, and the community has organized feminist edit-athons. [3]

Of course, there are many other platforms built primarily off of user-generated content contributed for free. Interestingly, we are beginning to witness a few social media platforms change course and offer to compensate some of their creators. Snap recently launched Spotlight, which will reward $1M per day to users who post viral content. This is a twist on the TikTok Creator Fund, which will give its creators globally $2B over the next three years.

It is unclear to me how these programs will impact app usage and user experience. While creator compensation may initially seem like a net positive, the knowledge that some content is paid for may disrupt the user experience which propelled these apps to success in the first place. I think about Instagram influencers, many of whom receive negative feedback from their fans for posting too much sponsored content. Wikipedians generally do not want to be paid, but if many were, it would likely negatively impact reader trust. On social media, communities are attracted to creator authenticity. The Creator Funds may hurt that. 

It’s hard to avoid the negativity and toxicity pervading seemingly every corner of the Internet these days. Learning more about the communities which have built Waze and Wikipedia has been refreshing. With the right tools, mission, and community, it’s possible to create a lot of value without a lot of capital. But it has to be fun. People won’t work for free, but they will have fun for free.

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[1] Wikipedia. Wikipedia:Wikipedians.

[2] Fortune. Why Waze Doesn’t Share Traffic Data With Google Maps—Data Sheet. Aaron Pressman and Adam Lashinsky.

[3] Wired. Wikipedia is the Last Best Place on the Internet. Richard Cooke.

[4] Wall Street Journal. ‘It Takes Over Your Life’: Waze Volunteers Work for the Love of Maps. Paul Berger.

[5] ZME Science. Meet the Internet’s unsung heroes: Wikipedia’s human collaborators. Alexandra Micu.

[6] Reddit. I am Steven Pruitt, the Wikipedian with over 3 million edits. Ask me anything!

[7] Haaretz. Lawsuit: Waze Owes 'Open-source' Programmers $150 Million. Shelly Appelberg.